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Sattra


 

The sattras
 
 
        The forerunners of the Bhakti movement in Assam found widespread following cutting across caste, creed and communities when they embarked on the philosophy of devotion and its multi-faceted ramifications. Proliferation of scriptures in local language, art, craft, painting and other forms of aesthetics like songs, drama and a new social system—all created, propounded and propagated by Sankardeva and his contemporary disciples were carried forward as a tradition by the later monks. The reason of sustenance of this great tradition of religion, art, culture and social organization over the last six hundred years is because of an organized continuum of the tradition— through the institution of the sattras. The sattra institution since the 16th century itself have witnessed its horizontal spread in terms of geographical coverage right from Koc-behar and some areas in present day Bangladesh to the tribal areas of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland on the eastern most part of the country. Its vertical spread may be assessed from its deep-rooted influences on the social fabric of mainland Assam over a very long period of history.
                                              
Origin of Sattra
 
      The dictionary meaning of the term sattra would imply a religious institution—a monastery. In Krishna Yajurveda, the word sattra is meant to connote various religious functions like ‘yajna’. A transliteration of the verses mentioning sattra in the 1st chapter of Bhagawat purana, (“Naimishe Naimishe kshetre rishayah Shaunakadai sattrang swargaya lokayo sahashra samamasata’), rendered by Sankaradeva himself, indicated sattra to be a place of congregation of sages and monks to get immersed in discourses on the Bhagawata religion.
        It is pertinent to mention here that the terminology sattra is an ancient one. The great master himself laid the foundation of this great institution when he set up its various components to further his philosophy in an organized manner at Bardowa. The essential feature of the sattra institution-the prayer house, called by nomenclatures like devagriha, sattragriha, kirttanghar in different carit-puthis was set up by Sankardeva   himself as the nucleus of this institution. Unending sessions of recitation, community singing of prayers, religious discourses by the apostles with the preceptor (Guru) as the epicenter were usual practices as detailed in many of the Carit-puthis. This practice widened the ambit to take into the fold of the order the common people of the places wherever the two masters Sankardeva and Madhavdeva had camped. Most such places of congregational prayers and discourses attained certain amount of sacred aura and the disciples later called them sattra or Thaan sattras. Several biographers however had stated clearly about setting up of sattra by Sankardeva at Bardowa, Koc-behar, Belaguri etc.
         
       Madhavdeva, who succeeded Sankardeva on the pontifical position, is credited with establishing a monastery in Barpeta in a manner that was novel and systematic. Damodardeva, another very dear disciple of Sankaradeva, and a much respected scholar, also established the monastery of Patbausi— with all the super-structures that had become the standardized style for all the later sattras to follow. Thus the institutionalized form of sattra was implemented by these two great disciples of Sankardeva. Benefitting from direct association and influences of both Madhabdeva and Damodardeva, Vamsigopaldev implemented the same in Upper Assam.

Naamghar and the hatis
 
        The prayer hall called naamghar inside the sattra premise plays a pivotal role in the sattra way of life. A large hall, rectangular in shape, is used as the congregational prayer hall of the devotees of the sattra. Over the years, this institution has become a centre for community deliberations in respect of temporal issues also. On the eastern part of the main prayer hall lies the sanctum-sanctorum called monikut. The holy throne called Simhasana is kept here to represent the abode of divinity. These naamghars along with the monikut form an important component of mainland Assam’s social life. While most of these naamghars maintain their allegiance towards one or the other sattra, they may be independent of sattra or may be adhering to other non-sattra ecclesiastical order like the Sankar Sangha

     It is generally the sattras of the celibate order which are distinctive in their sustenance of the old system of four dormitories, all around the naamghar. Called the hatis, the set of houses are constructed around all four directions of the naamghar to be used as the places of stay of the monks and disciples of a particular sattra. For the married persons, separate houses inside the premise are provided. There is also the concept of bahir-hati for those household families of devotees staying outside the sattra.
 
The Sattradhikar  
 
     The sattra is run as per a well organized system of administrative and operational structure. At the helm is the Sattradhikar. A number of disciples were tasked to propagate the faith and the tenets by Madhavdeva and Damodardeva and proselytize willing people. They set up sattras in different parts and were termed as Gosain, Sattriya, Adhikar or Sattradhikar. The Sattradhikar is the spiritual and administrative head, exercising a guardianship over thousands of men and women who become the disciples of that particular sattra. However, he does not own the sattra but acts as the principal ‘guide’ of the organization belonging to the community of disciples. Earlier, the Sattradhikar was chosen on the basis of a consensus or merit but later succession became hereditary in most of the sattras. In the sattras of the celibate order, even now, the Sattradhikar is nominated from another sattra by consensus. The Sattradhikar of Purana Kamalabari has requested this author to locate a well-groomed boy to be nominated and trained for the post of Deka-Sattradhikar— the designate in waiting. Both Barpeta and Bardowa sattras witness a system of democratic election to choose the Sattradhikar

    There is an elaborate mechanism of running a sattra and various events through a number of designated officials.
 
Samhatis:
 
       Over the years, specially after the passing away of the great preceptor, the Vaishnavite community acquired four different identities. A dispute over succession reportedly occurred between the two worthy disciples, Madhavdeva and Damodardeva, though as per the Carit-puthis, Sankardeva chose Madhava to take the mantle of carrying forward the faith. A new stream thus came about under the leadership of those disciples of Sankardeva, who were of closer proximity to Damodardeva.

Brahma Samhati: Thus the stream created by the Brahmin Gurus having allegiance to Damodardeva and with emphasis on Brahminical rituals came to be known as the Brahma Samhati. In the sattras of Brahma samhatis, the Sattradhikar is mostly of Brahmin caste. This samhati does not deny the emphasis on rituals of the greater Hindu faith; it holds that even a ‘Vaishnava’ can follow the precepts of the Vedic   rituals. Deva, meaning   God, is given the utmost focus in this and this sect advocates worshipping of the idol of Vishnu. There are more than a hundred Brahma samhati sattras in the Brahmaputra Valley, of which the Auniati, Dakhinpat, Garmur and Kuruabahi are the most famous and influential. Maneri Sattra at Bohori (Kamrup) was established by Haridev. Vamsigopaldev and Banamalidev played stellar roles in establishing the four famous sattras at Majuli in eastern Assam.

Kal Samhati: Madhavdeva’s most loved disciple Gopal Ata became the head after the demise of Madhavdeva. He established a sattra at Kaljhar in Barpeta. The sattras that had evolved from the teachings and guidance of Gopal Ata, Jadumoni and Aniruddhadev, had created the stream of Kal Samhati— the word ‘kal’ having come from the ‘Kaljhar Sattra’.

    This stream gives special focus on the role of the Guru or the preceptor. Gopaldeva is also called the Purna Gopal— the complete being and revered like God. Similarly Aniruddhadev who propagated the faith and managed to take into the fold the most backward and tribal people of the easternmost part of Assam and present day Arunachal Pradesh, is a very revered Guru. Some members owing allegiance to the Mayamora Sattra took arms and rose in a rebellion against the Ahom monarchy in the 17th century.
    Gopal Ata chose six Brahmin and six Kayastha Adhikars and trained them in various aspects of sattra administration. They were then sent to different places to propagate   which, over the years, resulted in formation of many sattras.

Purusa Samhati: This stream has come into being with the sattras referring descendency to Purusottam Thakur, the grandchild of Sankardeva. While he himself set up a sattra at Jania, Purusottam also selected six Brahmins and six Kayasthas to propagate the faith. Accordingly many sattras were set up by the early pontiffs. Chaturbhuj Thakur, brother of Purushottam also chose twelve other pontiffs who set up sattras like Bihimpur, Nachpar, Chungapara, Bongaya, Kaoimari, Halodhiati etc. Kanaka Barojon are those sattras of this stream which were set up at the initiative of Kanaklata, wife of Chatrubhuj Thakur. Among the four pillars of Sankardeva’s tenets, Purusa samhati lays maximum emphasis on naam or singing of hymns. That is how over the centuries, this samhati in considered gifted on music. This stream does not prohibit Brahminical rituals very strongly. Vishnu idol is worshipped in most of the sattras of this samhati.

Nika Samhati: This stream came about at last over the issue of equaling Madhavdeva and Chaturbhuj Thakur, the grandchild of Sankardeva. Mathuradas bura-Ata, Padma Badula-Ata,Keshabcaran and later Ramcaran Thakur are precursors of this samhati. While Sankardeva is considered the Guru of all Gurus, Madhavdeva also occupies a very major place in this. This samhati’s major emphasis is on maintaining and ensuring purity of body and mind (nika). The habits of food, clothing and ritualistic practices are overriding concerns in this samhati. Colleagues in prayer – Sat sang – is a special focus in this samhati. No idol finds a place here—instead the scriptures are given the position of God. Barpeta of Mathuradas, Kamalabari of Padma-Ata, Khotora of Gobinda Atoi, Dhupguri of Laxmikanta, Sundaridiya of Ramcaran etc. are important sattras of this samhati. Barpeta is the major sattra of this samhati where the democratic system of management of the sattra has been in place since it was established. Because of sustained practice and special focus on enculturation of the young monks in these sattras through learned monks, the wonders of cultural heritage of sattras are better preserved in most of these sattras. The Kamalabari heritage has played a pivotal role in sustaining the traditional dance and music.



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